I'm back from 9 days of travel across Uzbekistan from East to West. It's the 3rd time I've made the journey and I'd say it was the most enjoyable yet. I'm enjoying revisiting places that I've explored before and was startled when store owners in both Bukhara and Khiva remembered me! At first I thought it was some sales ploy, a chance to make conversation, but when they reminded me of who I had been travelling with and what I had purchased previously it was obvious that they did recognise me. How weird is that!
I decided to travel by car rather than train this time around - it suited our timetable better and allowed us to follow a more southern route that I can had covered before. From Tashkent Metro stop Sobir Rahimov we caught a shared taxi to Samarkand. It took about 4 hours (we were stopped for 20 minutes by police as they questioned me about my job and we also stopped to buy gas, melons and bread) and cost 22,000 soum each. The train takes about the same time and is cheaper but it leaves at 7am (too early as my friend's flight arrived at 6am) and then the evening train wouldn't have got us in to Samarkand until midnight. The roads were lined with apple sellers and stalls with jars of honey. It was a pleasant trip and thankfully and driver and his 2 teenage friends didn't play the music too loud.
We checked in at the hotel Antica. I had prebooked (they speak English) by telephone earlier in the week and knew that they were full but they had arranged for us to stay at a 'cousin's' hotel... the Dyor which was next door to a shop by the Registan with birdcages hanging from the porch. Don't stay at this hotel. Great location. Very dirty. We spent the next 2 nights at the Antica and loved it (only $35 for a double room) and the breakfast was amazing. I don't usually like tea but they make the most delicious fruit tea ever! The hotel is located right next door to Gor Amir and is a 5-10min walk to the Registan. Rooms are quiet,warm and everything was great.
This was my 7th visit to Samarkand so I wasn't too keen on spending a great amount of time at each of the sites. One of my favourite adventures was visiting Shah-I-Zinda (the tombs with all the steps... up on the hill) after dark. It looks like it is closed and all the lights are turned off. If you stroll on up to the gate there will be a couple of men looking after the place, perhaps reading the Koran. Pay the entrance fee and the place is yours to stroll around. Take a flash light as it is quite spooky... especially with the grave yard right next door!
We spent the most part of day traveling about 1 hour south west of Samarkand to David's Cave. We walked the 1338 (about that ... I was too tired to keep counting) steps to the cave. The top of the hill had the most amazing views down. I actually didn't go down into the cave but some friends did and paid to have a blessing. No one was sacrificing chickens but apparently many do here.
We forked out big time for a private taxi from Samarkand to Bukhara - $100 to travel via Shakhrisabz. It was well worth the expense though as the drive over the mountain pass was truly breathtaking. The leaves were changing colour and it was a delight to be in small villages. There are many fruit stands at the top of the hill. The sellers offer slices off fruit for you sample before making your selection. Timur's Summer Palace in Shakhrisabz is an amazing site. It is huge. Behind it is a Ferris wheel which offers a great view of the Palace from above... or you can climb the steps to the top.
We spent 3 long days in Bukhara. I say long as neither of us were really interested in shopping and this is the shopping mecca of Uzbekistan. We stayed at the Salom Inn. I highly recommend this place and have stayed there a few times. They are a little more expensive at $45 a night for a double but their service is great, the rooms wonderful, they speak English, breakfast is pretty good and you can prebook services with them.
We asked around the shop owners for rides to Khiva and finally someone found a friend of a friend who gave us a ride for $100. The hotel had offered to set us up for $130 and most others wanted $150. It's a rip off and you can get cheaper shared rides but again time was of the essence. Last year the journey across the desert took 7hours but this year it only took 5! The driver was so fast but seemed relatively safe. I sprawled out on the backseat and slept the whole way.
I stay at the Hotel Shaherezada Khiva when I stay here. I had enjoyed it as it is just inside the old City (at the south gate) but this time found the place irritating as it is run by a 10 year old girl and communicating prices and confirming reservations and been annoying - even when my Uzbek friends had phoned ahead for me. I think next time I'll try somewhere else - perhaps the Mirzoboshi which looked really interesting when we walked around it.
We went to the tourist information center (at the west gate... opposite the Arc) and booked a driver around the fortresses of Elliq Qala. They offered 2 routes - a cheap one for $60 which took in the big 4 and then the expensive one for $80 which took in about 8. We took the more expensive and also paid an extra $40 each to sleep in a yurt at Ayaz-Qala for the night. We froze our arses off. Great night out though and the stars in the sky were amazing. There are no towns for 25km and the only people at the camp were the cook and her son, us and the driver. Brilliant! Lunch, dinner and breakfast were included in the price. We were back in Khiva by 11am the next day and dropped our packs at the Information Center and they looked after then for the day (they don't close until 7pm). We hung out in the old city, drank vodka (left over from the Yurt) and waited for our flight back to Tashkent.
It was a fabulous trip.
Cautions: make sure you have brand new $US. No marks, tears etc.
We didn't seem an ATM on the whole trip... not that we looked very hard.
Middle - end of Oct is chilly out West. Bring a coat, sleeping bag etc. Hotels may not have heating.